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A Back to School Stress-Management Toolkit for Teens

Learn to navigate transitions without panicking and freaking out

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As the summer draws to a close and the school year begins, the stress ratchets up for teens and parents. For some, it’s the beginning of a new school year, the start of High School, or the first day at a new school. For older teens, it may be the beginning of Junior or Senior Year with the stress of standardized testing and navigating the college application process. You or your teen may be moving away from home for the first time to begin college in a new city. Some teens may feel excitement at the prospect of new challenges, while others may feel anxious or even panicked about the upcoming transition. You or your teen may experience social anxiety and shyness or lack of confidence about academic abilities, independence, or time management skills.

Teen stress on the rise

Stress among teens is on the rise nationwide according to recent surveys. A 2016 survey by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute found that 12 % of incoming college freshmen reported “frequently” feeling depressed in the past year and 14% expressed a desire to seek counseling for mental health concerns. This represented a record high compared to previous years. Anxiety was even more prevalent, with more than a third of incoming freshmen reporting frequent experience of anxiety in the past year. A 2014 survey by the American Psychological Association reported than teen stress exceeded that of adults that year (an average of 5.8 on a 10-point scale vs. 5.1 for adults).

Sources and signs of teen stress

The top sources of stress for teens are school and getting into a good college. In today’s competitive environment, pressure is high to pad resumes with oodles of activities and sign up for lots of difficult AP courses. Paying for college is also a significant stress with about half of college freshman reporting stress around this issue.

How do you know whether you or your teen are suffering from excess stress? Some signs of too much stress include constant anxiety, panic attacks, sleepless nights spent worrying, somatic complaints like frequent stomach aches or headaches, social isolation and withdrawal, fatigue and exhaustion or sad mood and other signs of depression.

De-stressing tools

What can teens do to manage their stress so it doesn’t turn into harmful chronic or excessive stress. Some stress is a normal part of life and can provide energy and motivation to work hard to meet your goals. But too much stress is harmful for physical and mental health. Many teens turn to marijuana or alcohol to calm anxiety, whether social or work-related.

Below are 3 strategies that you or your teen can use right now to manage stress:

Distract yourself

Make a coping plan for when you start to feel anxious or when you find yourself worrying for the umpteenth time about your grades or test results. Make a list of activities you can do instead of stressing out – then actually get up and do them. The second part is hard to do because anxiety or worry can grab hold of you. It helps to have the activity planned out beforehand, to do it when you just begin to feel stressed rather than waiting too long, and to keep trying even if you don’t succeed in breaking the grip of stress at first. With practice, you will begin to rewire your brain to get into “doing” mode rather than staying in “worrying” mode. You can move your brain's focus away from the basal ganglia and default mode network involved in worrying. Distraction engages the “on task” centers of your brain, which are different than the worry centers. Some distracting activities may include patting your dog or cat, calling a friend, tidying your room, walking to the kitchen to get a glass of water, going for a walk or run, and so on. Choose time-limited activities that allow you to get back to work when you need to rather than watching TV or checking social media, which can suck you in for hours.

Reframe the way you think about the situation

Try to find a way of looking at the situation that makes it seem less threatening. If you’re thinking that it will be the end of the world if you don’t get into your top-choice colleges or don’t get an A in a course, take a step back. Think about whether you could survive the dreaded outcome, even if you wouldn’t choose it. Are there things you could do to cope with the negative outcome (like study more or get a tutor)? Are you thinking about the situation in black and white terms and forgetting about the gray? There are many good colleges out there and all have produced at least some successful graduates. It’s also not only about the A’s! Many colleges look at the fit of the person to their philosophy or values, not just at grades.

Change your time frame

Another way to reframe the situation is to deliberately change your time perspective. In a newly published study, the researchers found that teens could effectively manage stress by imagining a time in the future when this stressor was over or no longer present. This technique of imagining a successful future self may create more confidence to manage the stressor. Or the longer time frame may help teens see the stressor in perspective – as just a point on their life’s journey, not the whole trip.

Accept and label your negative emotions

Often teens (and adults) react to feelings of stress by trying to get rid of them. But research shows that shoving down emotions doesn’t work long-term. They will eventually find a way to “leak out” and disrupt your life. A better strategy is to work on accepting that the emotion (like anxiety, anger, or sadness) is there, to stop blaming yourself or putting yourself down for feeling that way, and to find a way to tolerate it so you can keep moving towards your goals anyway. It is often not the emotions themselves that are the problem, but the way we intensify them with negative judgments or fearful predictions. Verbalizing the emotion can give you some distance and emotion regulation. Say the name of the emotion out loud, write your thoughts and feelings down in a diary, or share your feelings with a trusted friend or family member. In a classic study by James Pennebaker and colleagues at the University of Texas-Austin, first year-college students who wrote their thoughts and feelings about college adjustment in a diary visited the student health center less often in the following weeks than a control group that wrote about emotionally neutral events.


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Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, life coach, author, and national speaker. She practices in Mill Valley, CA and online. Her expertise is in helping clients manage life and relationships using mindfulness, self-care, and de-stressing tools supported by research.

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